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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

SCOE Weighs in on Universal TK

This interview is part two of a two-part series about California’s recent expansion of transitional kindergarten in public schools.

Family Life: You are a Young Learners Program Specialist for the Sonoma County Office of Education. Can you tell me about what that job entails?

Brulene Zanutto: As California is moving to a P3 [preschool to third grade] educational model, part of my role has been supporting the districts as they enroll younger students and make sure that what they are offering is high quality, and also to support collaborations between the school districts and the community early-learning and care options. I also provide professional learning opportunities for all educators across that whole universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) spectrum.

FL: Do you feel like public transitional kindergarten (TK) is going to be of ultimate benefit for Sonoma County? 

BZ: The vision of UPK is that every four-year-old in California has the opportunity to engage in high-quality early-learning and care. The biggest thing to remember is that families have a choice. They don’t have to go to TK. I do believe that having four-year-olds in some sort of early-learning and care option is a positive thing, but it’s not up to anybody except the family to determine which setting that care is in. 

FL: And what choices are available for families?

BZ: We like to think of it like this: Imagine I have a four-year-old and an ice cream cone. I get to decide what scoop or scoops of ice cream that I would like. One scoop of ice cream is the state-funded preschools, which are called California State Preschool Programs (CSPP) and for which I have to qualify. I could also choose the scoop of ice cream that is Head Start, which is federally funded pre-school. Again, there are income qualifications, school qualifications, job employment, and those kinds of things. I can also choose a private preschool or a neighborhood family childcare center, or I could send my child to Grandma—another scoop of ice cream. Another scoop of ice cream is transitional kindergarten, which lives within school districts and is the first year of a two-year kindergarten program. All of those are viable options; however, the only that has no qualifications or cost is transitional kindergarten. The ultimate goal is that families get to choose the best program for them. Unfortunately, finances do come into play for families.

FL: Families don’t have to write a check or jump through any bureaucratic hoops to participate in public TK, and that could compel them to choose it over the other options. 

BZ: Yes.

FL: Do you think schools are ready for this? It seems like, with this free option, there would be an onslaught of students. Are there growing pains? 

BZ: One of the misconceptions people have is that public TK is just starting now. It actually started in 2015. [The window for enrollment keeps expanding every year.] Last year, kiddoes who were turning five between September 2 and December 2 could go to TK. Next year, it will be between September 2 and April 2. By the year 2026, any four-year-old will be able to go to TK. 

FL: So it’s not like public TK was recently thrust upon the school districts; there has been preparation.

BZ: Yes, there has been preparation. However, this is a big increase. And there is a national and state teacher shortage already. So there are growing pains, as you said, as we expand to this larger program.

FL: What else would you like readers to know about the program?

BZ: I would like them to know that there is ETK, which stands for early transitional kindergarten. This means districts have the choice to enroll kids earlier than the TK birthday enrollment windows. This is very much a district-to-district decision. If you have a four-year-old and wonder if a school will accept him or her, the best thing to do is to pop into the school and talk to the front office staff. A lot of people don’t know that schools begin enrolling for both TK and kindergarten as early as January or February. For some districts, it’s more like March. 

As parents are thinking about the other options we discussed—those ice cream scoops—now is the time to do some visiting. Go visit a private preschool; go visit a home family center; go to a CSPP or a Head Start and find out if you qualify. Know all your options so you can make the best decision for your family.

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